Most people cringe at the thought of an early morning hike in sub zero temperatures - ones that when you factor the wind can turn the burning fires of hell into a world of ice. The cold winter is a different kind of hell to some people, but to myself and my dog, a venture into winter wonderland reveals a world of wildlife waiting to be explored. Toronto and the surrounding area offers a wide variety of fragmented habitat which allows one many opportunities to catch a glimpse of birds, those that are both thriving as well as those struggling to survive. In the cold of winter very few environments are as plentiful as the partially frozen lakeshore. In Toronto the majority of this habitat consists of a variety of interconnecting parts, broken up by marinas, particularly on the city's west end in Etobicoke. I frequent two major parks in this area, Humber Bay East and Colonel Sam Smith, both have a significant amount of shoreline, pebble beaches that a wide variety of waterfowl call home in the winter. So the first step in getting waterfowl pictures is to go where they are!
Quite often when you see average waterfowl photography, it is of a drake mallard, taken from standing - looking down upon a bird, that lets face it, is begging for food. The image that this creates is a busy one - with the subject, the ducks eye, only inches away from the ground or water. Although a shot of a rare bird in this fashion is better than no photograph at all, there is something special about a photograph composed at the eye level of the bird. For one, it isolates the subject from the background even with the a set of rocks nearby, a photo at eye level can completely blow out the background. It also brings the viewer of the photograph to the bird's perspective, painting a picture of how life is like navigating the world only a few inches above the waterline.
The second key ingredient in waterfowl photography is simply weather, using the term weather to broadly encompass light (sunrise & sunset most pleasant). Getting out there in poor weather one can make a photograph go from good, to excellent. Take the Ring Necked Duck, I was tracking it freezing my stomach while laying flat on a sheet of ice, and even though I took many photographs in the first 30 minutes, they were completely eclipsed when the snow began to fall. The giant flakes obscured the legion of noisy mallards in the background further isolating the subject from the scene. A little duck, on a small pool of water braving the harsh elements of winter. Nothing speaks more to resilience than this bird at this moment.
Everyone who has taken a walk by a lake or pond has seen a mallard or even been harassed by an overly aggressive Canada goose, but the world is filled with so much more diversity. When you stroll the beach watch for birds bobbing up and down above the water. That usually signals a unique species, atleast more unique than your standard water rat. In Ontario in winter alone you can encounter, Long Tailed Ducks, Lesser & Greater Scoups, Mergansers (Red Breasted, Hooded & Common), Ring Necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Scooters, Grebes and a wide variety of others. With the temperature far below zero the ice continues to lurch forward, creating a dynamic and alwasys changing landscape to photograph these birds by the shore or in small bays and pools. Some will migrate south, others return when the warmth of the sun forces winter to recede (Pintails, etc.). On top of the species unique mating behaviours begin to take place in March, offering even more opportunities to capture that special "spark".
"Great" you must be thinking, "too bad these little ducks scatter away so the only picture I come away with is the back of a duck." Trust me, as you hone your talent, you will get many pictures of ducks fleeing in the process, and although I'm not necessarily opposed to using a blind, I do find that it draws undue attention to yourself in a city bustling with people. And to be honest, there are so many people around that an off leash dog will spook the bird just as they approach to investigate the fake vegetation planted on the beach.
The keys to my wildlife photography are a combination of patience, and understanding the timing and behaviour of the birds in question. Diving ducks allow one to approach and position themselves, and with a little luck, when they breech the surface of the water you will be there waiting with the camera.
For Mergansers I find that they dive for 45 seconds to a minute, and go a distance of 15 meters horizontally along the shore while hunting. Scaups and Long Tailed Ducks less so, and tend to re-emerge from the depths only a few meters away from where they took the plunge. Timing is everything, and if you are close to the ground when they reappear from the hunt, often times they will not be bothered by your temporary presence allowing you to capture a few lasting clicks.
The shoreline in recent years has seen a return of a number of other critters. Minks, Coyotes, etc. That you are bound to encounter some other wildlife brazing the frost and cold. This is one thing I enjoy most about wildlife photography, you never know what you will encounter when you venture out of your door. The world is your subject, go on and explore it!